Rethinking Conferences

“We need to think different [about education]”
– From a personal conversation

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

I enjoy conferences, a lot. There is something about being in a venue full of people who are typically like-minded, hearing from a variety of speakers on a range of topics, coming away with pages of notes, a number of new teaching tools, ideas or pedagogical changes to implement in my own practice and the feeling of energy and excitement that permeates the air. However, there are drawbacks to conferences, specifically, around how they are structured.

In my (admittedly limited) experience thus far, there appears to be one main style of conference structure; a range of concurrent conferences streams each loosely based on a central theme with attendees locked into the conference stream for which they registered. I have enjoyed the conferences I have attended that follow this structure, yet the loose thematic organisation enables a range of ordinarily unrelated topics to fall within one conference stream. Conversely, in the conferences I have attended thus far, within each conference stream, there has been a vast array of topics bundled which appeared quite disparate in their nature. While there have been no speakers from whom I learned nothing, there have certainly been speakers from whom I learned more than others, as well as some speakers whose presentations I largely switched off from as the topic was not in my sphere of interest.

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A random conference photo. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/z75zaro on 24 March 2016

When I saw a Tweet advertising a conference with the tagline Time for Change, my curiosity led me to follow the links and read more. The conference was Education Nation which has positioned itself as a conference organised based around uniquely Australian issues, such as our size and population spread, the diversity of educational institutions (from public to Catholic, Montessori, Anglican etc.) and the relationships between the various diverse stakeholders as well as the big ideas which permeate education in general. The organisers are looking to make a real difference in education by provoking conversations between sectors and stakeholders.

“It’s a new kind of education event. One that’s ABOUT Australian education, BY Australian education and FOR Australian education.”

This concept intrigued me, and it held up when, whilst looking through the speaker list, I saw that every speaker is part of the Australian Education industry, from classroom teachers through to those in various leadership roles; there are no high-profile international Edu-Stars being flown in for this conference. The tipping point for me, where I started to buy into its premise of being about, by, and for Australian education, was when I discovered that one of the speakers was a High School Principal by the name of Wayne Chaffey.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/aoe92rn 24 March 2016

Unlike the impression we get from Alec Guinness’ face when he hears Luke Skywalker ask about Obi-Wan Kenobi, my recollection of hearing this long-unheard name was positive. Mr. Chaffey was my physics teacher when I was in Years Eleven and Twelve (and after all these years, I still cannot bring myself to call him by his given name), the Deputy Principal of the school at that point in time and the father of a kid who was one of my best mates all through high school. He was an excellent teacher, well-respected and liked by the vast majority of the student body, and one of the few teachers whom I would have gone back to in order to show off what I have achieved since graduating if I was to do that.

Education Nation now had credibility for me; you trust and believe in something more willingly if you know and trust someone who is involved. Mr. Chaffey was a fantastic teacher and one for whom I had (and still have) nothing but respect. I also know that he would not sign on to something on a whim. If he is involved, then I have faith it will be worthwhile attending.

So I went digging, learning about how the event would be structured, how the conference streams would be classified, who would be speaking and of course, what the costs would be. Education Nation has structured itself around ten key ideas that drive education in our country and has created a structure of two Forums and four Elements, with each focused on a different thematic challenge within education, yet all six streams contain the ten key ideas.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/gmtrdq8 on 24 March 2016

You can read the agenda for the two forums and each of the Elements by clicking on the relevant link below.

My read of the programs across each of the six areas is that the presentations will be tightly focused around the core theme and that speakers have been asked to get gritty and real, acknowledging the issues, bringing up new issues and addressing potential avenues of opportunity to solve those issues. I recently had a conversation with one of the organisers and was told that (paraphrasing) “speakers were asked to rock the boat, do not bring the party or company line, deal with the issues and rip the band-aid off.” The thirty-minute conversation has left me more excited for what is to come.

This approach differentiates it from other conferences which I have attended, where we typically hear about a new program/app/gadget/technological solution, or some context-specific solutions to a context-specific issue that is not often transferable. Those are not bad in and of themselves, however, the near-constant rhetoric around the crisis in Australian Education requires us to think different about education, to rip the band-aid off and deal with the issues.

The structure and program for Education Nation is such that although you are registering for one of the streams, you will find that they are more tightly focused around the theme for that stream, rather than the loose association of presentations at many other conferences. So I would encourage you to register as soon as you are able, particularly for the Elements as numbers for those streams are capped

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jqdf75o on 24 March 2016

With the impending Federal election, we are sure to see education being used to score political points over the coming months, and so the presentation by Senator The Honourable Simon Birmingham (@birmo) on Day Two of the Rethinking Reform forum (ministerial commitments pending) is timely. Given the moderated Q&A session that will be part of his session and the advice to speakers, the questions asked will be sure to rock the boat, and test Simon’s ability to think on his feet and spark conversation and dialogue amongst all involved in education. The presentation by Dr. Kenneth Wiltshire titled “What’s the future of curriculum in Australia” is sure to make an interesting follow-up to Simon’s, especially given the furore around ACARA and the National Curriculum.

digital-dimensions
Retrieved from tinyurl.com/zptm8of

Simon McKenzie’s presentation which asks the question technology in our schools – identifying if we have just made everything worse will be an interesting presentation, and I suspect will evoke strong feelings one way or another, as will the following presentation by Leanne Steed and Elizabeth Amvrazis which is asking whether technology is making us forget what education means, which is sure to spark some interest given that the meaning and purpose of education is not at all universally agreed upon.

The panel discussion that is scheduled for the Digital Dimensions conference which focuses on the seeming inevitability of social media in education will also be an interesting session, given the plethora of teachers who utilise social media both professionally and in the classroom.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/gnuylg2 on 24 March 2016

From The Leader Element, the Rebecca Dao / Graeme Green led workshop focusing on developing a framework to support wellbeing, is dealing with an important theme which I believe is often left out of educational discussions. It is certainly one which I will be putting on my list of presentations to engage with. Additionally, the Peter Mader lead session focusing on the ever-present and often difficult to navigate the divide between policy and practice will be interesting.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/z8o4bzq on 24 March 2016

The Learner Element contains two particular presentations which I am hoping to look at; one on helping students to understand and become active participants in their learning (led by Ed Cuthbertson and Prue Gill from Lanyon High School), which is a concept I am grappling with currently in my own practice and so has professional relevance, and the other is the final session, examining whether the benefits of technology are seen similarly by both educators and learners.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/gvaa4x6 on 24 March 2016

The Educator Element contains a number of presentations which I would like to attend, but one in particular, led by Matt Esterman (@mesterman), focuses on how we as educators choose to spend our time and money vis-a-vis professional learning experiences, which holds great relevance for me personally. This follows on from, and links in well with a session led by Jacques du Toit which focuses on how educators can become twenty-first-century learners themselves, through practical examples of the use of technologies and social media.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/h2ho539 on 24 March 2016

The Community Element contains the presentation my former teacher, Mr Chaffey, will be facilitating alongside Rachael Sowden, and focuses on engaging our students’ parents as a resource for student learning. Additionally, at the outset of The Community, Matt Esterman is leading a session which focuses on how schools communicate to their community, given the plethora of platforms now available for doing so and dealing with communication expectations from parents and staff.

Education Nation is not limited to the Forums and The Elements. There will be a live #aussieEd event and The Great Debate, featuring Dr. David Zyngier and Dr. Kevin Donnelly going head-to-head on the age-old public education versus private education debate. A future article will contain more information about those events though I would encourage you to register your interest for the live #aussieEd event to assist the organisers with arranging the venue and pricing for that particular event.

Conferences often leave you with an afterglow of conference excitement, yet the notes that are taken at conferences so often never see the light of day afterwards. I feel that this conference, with its topic tighter focus, and its spotlight on specific problems within education will create a situation where, after attending, you will be able to return your specific context with a series of steps of what you can do to begin resolving a specific problem or challenge that you are facing.

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Education Nation is looking to provoke honest conversation and light a fire for change. Image retrieved from tinyurl.com/h96n3mt on 30 March 2016

 

I believe that the timing is right for a conference where we stop charging forward, taking on board a raft of new ideas, pedagogical strategies, tools, gadgets and fads and pause for a moment. We, and I include myself in this statement, need to ask ourselves more often why this tool, or pedagogical strategy? Education Nation will provide an opportunity for us to work with others to explore solutions to existing challenges in our education system and our specific contexts. I know that not every challenge I face will be addressed at Education Nation, nor would I expect it to be, however, after looking through the agendas, I am confident that I will come away with ideas on how to tackle at least one of my challenges with a view to resolving it, in addition to some ideas for chipping away at some other challenges.

On a personal note, I am very much excited to have an opportunity to see Mr. Chaffey (I just cannot bring myself to call him by his given name) again, as well as a range of other educators whom I know thanks to Twitter and my online PLN. I am also excited by the prospect of a conference which is working hard to think different and provoke constructive conversations. Will I see you there?

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Conferences

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